For a month last year, a woman named Autumn Whitefield– Madrano draped all the mirrors in her home and ducked reflective surfaces like spoons and subway windows. On her blog The Beheld, she wrote about the sensation of being mirror-free: how, while exercising in a gym, her focus shifted from the way she looked to the way her body felt; how, on vacation, she was unusually present with her partner; how, over all, she thought much less about her appearance – and about lipstick, which seemed pointless Whitefield-Madrano, 36, doesn’t hate how she looks. On the phone from New York, she told me that she has good mirror days and bad ones.
Her goal in breaking the habit was essentially to be unseen to herself in order to really see herself. She wrote: “Women are constantly being looked at. Even when we’re not, we’re so hyperaware of the possibility of being looked at that it can rule even our most private lives. Including in front of our mirrors, alone.”
Recently, Whitefield-Madrano made a video diary of a second mirror– free month for a Today segment and the response to her “mirror fast” was strangely negative, as the website Jezebel noted. On Today , Dr. Nancy Snyderman tsk-tsked: “This is a visual society we live in and how we present ourselves opens up doors for dating and job interviews.” On ABC, Tyra Banks warned: “Not looking in the mirror says ‘they’ win” – ‘they’ being the beauty-industrial complex that Banks has been fighting so valiantly for years via America’s Next Top Model , a show that once required a grown woman to writhe in a wading-pool-sized bowl of Greek salad?
Of course, Banks and her ilk have a vested commercial interest in ramping up women’s beauty anxiety. But for Whitefield-Madrano, the mirror fast wasn’t a self-esteem building exercise. “I think many people leapt to the conclusion that I saw the mirror as an enemy, but I don’t. It was more about the ‘why’ of the mirror. What was my relationship to the mirror? Why did I look at it when I already know how I look? It was becoming part crystal ball, telling me about how I was feeling, grounding me, but I was always slightly performing for it.”
It seems to go against our animal natures to render ourselves invisible by choice. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan believed that human development pivots around the “mirror stage,” when the child recognizes him– or herself in the mirror and discovers subjectivity, separate from the mother.
But what about the teenage mirror stage? I remember the summer that my 12-year-old friend T.’s mom got remarried. With the new husband came a new house and a full-length mirror in T.’s bedroom. We spent the summer in front of that mirror, trying on clothes and makeup, singing, waiting. The pull of that mirror on the backside of the door was both thrilling and exhausting, practice for the scrutiny we sensed was coming for us as we crossed over from childhood.
I never wanted such a mirror in my own room.
John Berger – whom Whitefield– Madrano cites as an influence – wrote of Venetian paintings, all those Venuses gazing into mirrors: “The real function of the mirror … was to make a woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight.”
The woman gazing at her reflection is a loaded image: She is alternately vain, powerful or the housewife in the ad, defeated by streaks. No one wants to be Snow White’s stepmother. But dare to throw out the mirror and suffer the kind of disapproval that an anthropologist expressed in The Observer while coming down against mirror-fasting: “It smacks of narcissism more than looking in the mirror like a normal person.”
Problem is, it might not be going so well for normal women and their mirrors. A British study published in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy, for instance, found that subjects with Body Dysmorphic Disorder – a fixation on imagined body flaws – became distressed after only 25 seconds of looking in the mirror. Researchers were surprised, however, to find that, after 10 minutes, the control group of volunteers without BDD also became anxious about their appearances. A possible conclusion: The longer we look, the more flaws, perhaps, we see.
Escaping one’s own reflection by shrouding mirrors is no small thing: It’s a gesture toward the kind of self-erasure promised by religious deliverance, whatever shape that takes. Maybe it’s particularly Canadian to have flirted with that feeling while spending time in the woods, working or camping. There, far from mirrors, you quickly forget how you look. For days or weeks, you see yourself mostly by the touch of your fingers. And then, upon return, stepping into that first bathroom, there is a startling glance – you, perfect and imperfect, caught in the glass.